Excellency

The religious center for Edwards was his sense of the glory of God, a glory manifest especially in divine sovereignty, which Edwards learned to interpret by means of the idea of ''excellency.'' As a young man he objected to the thought of a divine sovereignty exercised in decrees of election and reprobation. Gradually, however, this thought became ''pleasant, bright, and sweet'' to him because he gained a ''new sense'' of the ''excellency'' of a Being who united both ''majesty and grace.'' Edwards initially analyzed the idea of ''excellency'' in his notes on ''The Mind,'' which he probably began in i723 after completing his theology degree at Yale. He opened the notes with the observation that he found himself ''more concerned'' with excellency than with any other theme: ''yea, we are concerned,'' he said, ''with nothing else.''6 European scholastics, Puritan theologians, and British philosophers had long used the term ''excellency,'' and Edwards was familiar with definitions of it as harmony, symmetry, or proportion. By associating excellency with mathematical relations like proportion and harmony, and by linking those concepts to the notion of beauty, he carried New England theology into the mainstream of seventeenth-century philosophy and eighteenth-century aesthetic and ethical theory. Concepts of harmony pervaded the thought of the Cambridge Platonists, whom Edwards read as a student at Yale. He found similar ideas in his reading of the Dutch philosophers Franco Burgersdyck (1590-1635) of Leiden University, who emphasized, in Platonic fashion, the harmony of the moral virtues, and Adrian Heerebord (1613-61), also of Leiden, who argued in his Meletemata philosophica (1654) that all goodness consisted in ''fitting-ness.'' He further refined his understanding of excellency through his involvement in the eighteenth-century British debate over ethics. The great divide in British moral thought was between ''sentimentalists'' like Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, who grounded ethics in a ''moral sense'' that approved the ''beauty'' of virtuous actions, and ''intellec-tualists'' like Ralph Cudworth and Samuel Clarke, who emphasized the capacity of reason to discern the ''fitness'' between human actions, on the one hand, and ''the proportions'' and ''relations'' of being, on the other. Edwards criticized both sides, but their debates helped him work out his own idea of excellency as a spiritual harmony mirrored in the order of the natural and social worlds.7

His attempts to explain this spiritual harmony drew him into metaphysics. The question was why the human mind found harmony or proportion so pleasing. His answer was that proportion defined being itself: ''if we examine narrowly,'' he wrote, being is ''nothing else but proportion.'' Reality consisted of relations, and the mind found disproportion and disharmony jarring because it found them contrary to being. Reality was a web of relations constituted by ''the consent of being to being.'' Eventually, Edwards qualified his definition of being as proportion, but he never abandoned his understanding of excellency as the consent of being to being. Although he began early in the ''The Mind'' to limit the ''proper'' meaning of consent to agreements among spirits—minds and wills—he also continued, as he noted, to ''borrow'' the term to designate relations in the natural world. In either case, excellency had its grounding in the nature of being itself.8

Notions of excellency, consent, harmony, symmetry, proportion, and fitness affected the way Edwards thought about almost everything. And although they had their origins in the intellectual traditions that formed his reading, their prominence in his thought must also have reflected his sensitivity to the tensions of his own local society. Edwards was writing theology at a time when popula tion growth in Northampton and other nearby towns produced increased competition for good land and resources close to the villages. He frequently deplored the divisions in Northampton and the ''spirit of contention, disorder, and tumult'' throughout the region. Part of his enthusiasm for the revivals came from their apparent success in resolving ''old quarrels,'' and in 1742 he had his congregation subscribe to a covenant that they would seek harmony with each other and with God. He was, moreover, acutely sensitive to conflict with other people, and he often complained of it in his letters. Both his personality and his social location therefore drew him to the theme of harmony. Envisioned as ''excellence,'' that theme shaped a style of thinking that made Edwards unique among the eighteenth-century colonial theologians.9

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